Middle class children are at risk of being groomed to sell drugs by criminal gangs, a parliamentary report has warned.
Police believe gangs’ use of children to sell Class A drugs has spread from London to other cities like Liverpool and Greater Manchester, the All Parliamentary Group on runaway and missing children and adults said in its new report.
One middle class parent told the APPG: “My son became involved in a gang where he was exploited to sell class A drugs at the age of 14 in 2012, I didn’t know what to do or who to call.”
The APPG report warns that children from “stable and economically better off backgrounds” are being drawn in, coerced and exploited by gangs.
Last year, the National Crime Agency said gangs were using children in 80% of police areas in the country. The children were as young as 12.
Much of the exploitation takes places within what police call the “county lines” model, where gangs extend their business out of their home cities and into other areas, often by exploiting children or vulnerable adults to work for them.
One victim told the APPG that children as young as eight or nine are regularly being groomed and exploited by gangs.
The report says: “Any child can be groomed for criminal exploitation. It affects boys and girls, children from families that experience a range of issues as well as those from stable and economically better off families.
“Some children are initially approached by their peers, who have been groomed and exploited, which can make it even harder for them to identify the risks without prior education.”
The report also warns professionals to recognise when children are being exploited and not to dismiss their lives as young drug runners as a “lifestyle choice”, like early victims of child sexual exploitation in towns like Rotherham and Rochdale.
The report adds: “Worryingly, vulnerable children and young people who are trafficked and exploited by gangs to distribute drugs are still too often perceived to have ‘made a choice’ and are therefore criminalised rather than safeguarded and recognised as victims of the gangs who control them...
“Patterns of grooming of children for criminal exploitation are very similar to those of sexual exploitation. In the past, child sexual exploitation was often perceived among professionals as the victim’s fault, or due to their risky behaviour. We believe that in some areas of the UK a similar culture currently exists around criminal exploitation by gangs.”
The APPG called for the school curriculum to include the risks of grooming and exploitation and a national database for missing people to make it easier for police forces to share intelligence.
Ann Coffey, the MP who chairs the APPG, said: “Young people who are groomed into drug running by adults are being exploited in the same way as those who are enticed into sexual activity. They too are vulnerable and need our support.
“Children from all backgrounds can be affected. We need a greater understanding and awareness of this kind of criminal exploitation of children and better training to ensure it is recognised and prevented at an early stage.
“Once a child is criminalised it is very hard to get them back to the other side of the law.”
Susannah Drury, director of services and advocacy at Missing People, a charity dedicated to locating the mising, said: “We welcome today’s report, which illustrates the pervasive and damaging nature of the ‘county lines’ phenomenon.
“At the charity Missing People we see every day that children who go missing are incredibly vulnerable to being exploited by gangs, among other forms of criminal exploitation.
“Children of all ages and backgrounds go missing and can therefore be targeted and groomed by gangs who go on to exploit them for drug dealing, and other purposes including sexual exploitation.
“The sooner that professionals working with all children can be encouraged to recognise going missing and gang involvement as indicators of exploitation, the sooner these young people can get the help they need and the criminal networks who have exploited them can be uncovered and tackled.”